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What to Know Before Filing a Rule to Show Cause

Court OrderA question I frequently receive from family law clients or potential clients is: “the other party has violated our court order—so what can I do about it?”

When one party violates a previous order from a Virginia court, the other party has the opportunity to petition the court for enforcement of the order. In Virginia, this is called a Petition for a Rule to Show Cause. At the Show Cause hearing, the judge will give the person alleged to be in violation an opportunity to defend their actions, and present evidence as to why they may have violated the court order. If the court is not satisfied by that evidence or explanation, it may hold the violating party in contempt and may issue a punishment based on the type and severity of the violation.

Punishments may be civil or criminal, and will vary depending on whether the punishment is intended to be punitive or intended to simply force a party’s compliance with the original court order. Examples of punishments include the imposition of fines, payment of attorney fees, suspension of a party’s driver’s license, jail time, and jail time with a “purge bond” whereby the party must pay a certain amount of money in order to be released from jail.

As a practical matter, Show Cause hearings are often held before the same judge who issued the previous order, and experience tells us that judges do not look kindly on those who violate their orders.

Here are five tips to follow when filing for a Rule to Show Cause in your family law (divorce, custody, support, etc.) case:

  1. Dig Up Your Old Order. You should go through your files, call your previous attorney, or go to the courthouse to ensure you have a full and complete copy of the court order in question. This will be the most important document in a Rule to Show Cause proceeding.
  2. Contact Your Attorney. While not a requirement, it is often advisable to work with the attorney that assisted you on your previous case, as that attorney would have familiarity with the case and would have first-hand knowledge of the court order in question.
  3. Understand the Process. To proceed with filing for a Rule to Show Cause in Virginia, you will need to: (a) ask the court to re-open the case, (b) put together (with your attorney) a petition which outlines the alleged violations of the court order, (c) file the petition, along with a Rule to Show Cause, both of which you will need to have personally served on the opposing party, and (d) set a court date at which time the court will determine whether or not the allegations warrant a finding of contempt or not.
  4. Be Specific With Your Allegations. In order for a court to find the opposing party in contempt of a previous court order, you must allege that the opposing party violated a specific provision of the order. While this may sound obvious, I have seen several cases where a petitioning party makes an allegation that is not specific to a provision in the previous order, or does not even allege a violation of the order. In these circumstances, based on long-standing Virginia case law, a court cannot make a finding of contempt—and the cause of action can and most likely will be dismissed.
  5. Request Payment of Your Attorney’s Fees. Where the court finds one party in violation of a previous order, that court is very likely to order the violating party to pay some or all of the attorney’s fees and costs of the other party. In fact, many Marital Settlement Agreements (MSAs) provide that any party who breaches the MSA will be responsible for any attorney’s fees and costs the non-breaching party might incur in enforcing the MSA in court. Whether your case involves such an MSA or not, make sure to request payment of your attorney’s fees and costs by the party who is violating the previous court order.

If you are pursuing or defending against a Rule to Show Cause, be sure to consult with an experienced family law attorney in your jurisdiction. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers across offices in Fairfax, Arlington, Ashburn, Manassas, and Fredericksburg, representing clients across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.